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Trump impeachment trial live coverage: Senators probe prosecution, defense

Senators have a total of 16 hours over two days to probe House impeachment managers as well as the White House defense team.
Image: Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House voted to send impeachment articles against President Donald Trump to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell officially received the House managers on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House voted to send impeachment articles against President Donald Trump to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell officially received the House managers on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

Senators grilled both the House managers and the defense team on Wednesday during the first day of the question-and-answer period of President Donald Trump's impeachment trial.

Senators have a total of 16 hours over two days to probe House impeachment managers as well as the White House defense team, which have had three days each to deliver their arguments.

Senators are still divided on whether to hear from witnesses.

Highlights from the impeachment trial so far

Article II - Q & A

Today, on Article II, Steve Kornacki talks to Leigh Ann Caldwell, NBC News Correspondent covering Congress, about the first round of the question and answer period in the Senate trial.

The two discuss:

  • The Democrats’ effort to convince their fellow senators to call new witnesses in the trial
  • The Republicans’ strategy to argue that the president’s conduct is not impeachable
  • Where the math in the Senate stands on witnesses as we head into day two of Q&A

Democrats furious about Trump team's comments on foreign interference

Democratic senators were incensed Wednesday night at the White House defense team’s argument that a president can ask a foreign leader for information against a political opponent.

They emerged from the Senate chamber in shock, almost speechless after deputy counsel Pat Philbin said that asking a foreign leader for information "is not something that would violate campaign finance laws."

Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said the comments set "a stunning new precedent that is unheard of in our country."

"It’s dangerous dangerous dangerous," she said.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said that "there were audible gasps on the Democratic side" during Philbin's answer.

He added, "that's a pretty extraordinary message to put on the record in the middle of an impeachment trial about that very kind of corruption."

"This idea that you would take information from a foreign government seeking to impact an election and then weaponize that or use that just because it may be credible, I've just never heard anything like that, I think it's absolutely unconscionable, and I just think we're in new territory," said Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

Schiff: Trump, GOP defense 'a remarkable lowering of the bar'

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said that the White House and Republicans are lowering the bar for what is acceptable and lawful for the president to do in his re-election efforts. 

"It’s now okay to criminally conspire with another country to get help in a presidential election," Schiff said the White House legal team's arguments.

"We have witnessed a remarkable lowering of the bar to the point now where everything is okay as long as the president believes it's in his re-election interest,” he said, adding, "It is not okay to solicit foreign interference and a failed scheme doesn't make you innocent."

Schiff said that there has been a "remarkable evolution" in the White House’s response to the impeachment inquiry, from the Trump legal team arguing that none of what witnesses said involving Trump occurred and later saying it was okay for Trump to pursue quid pro quo if it was in the country's best interest.

Oops! Blunt refers to Sen. McSally as McCaskill

Dershowitz: 'The president is the executive branch. He is irreplaceable'

Dershowitz said Wednesday that there’s an "enormous difference" between impeaching a judge and impeaching a president because the president is "irreplaceable."

"The president is the executive branch. He is irreplaceable," Dershowitz said emphatically in response to a question by five GOP senators who asked how the framers would view removing a president if only one political party supported the president's impeachment. 

On the other hand, he said that "no judge, not even the chief justice, is the judicial branch." 

Dershowitz said that the House acted like it could do whatever it wanted in determining what is impeachable in the case of Trump. 

"The House of Representatives is not above the law," he said. 

"But to use that criteria, that it's whatever the House says it is whenever the Senate says it is, turns those bodies into lawless bodies in violation of the intent of the framers."

Nadler argues Giuliani's role proves Trump was not concerned about corruption in Ukraine

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked House impeachment managers whether Trump bringing up Guiliani on the July call showed the true purpose since Giuliani admitted he was working on behalf of the president in Ukraine.  

Nadler noted that Giuliani had a key role and was only interested in getting investigations into the Bidens specifically and not corruption in general, rebutting the argument from Trump’s defense team that the president was deeply concerned about corruption in Ukraine. 

"Mr. Giuliani confirmed President Trump's knowledge of his actions with regard to Ukraine, stating: 'He knows what I'm doing. Sure, as his lawyer.' He added: 'My only client is the president of the United States. He's the one who I have an obligation to report to,'" Nadler said. 

ANALYSIS: Rival campaigns say Trump's attacks are warning to Biden

As Joe Biden barnstorms Iowa before Monday's all-important caucuses, his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination are cautiously flagging a high-intensity battery of Republican attacks on him as warning signs for the party.

Andrew Yang suggested Wednesday that it was wrong for Biden's son Hunter to sit on the board of a foreign company when Biden was vice president.

That kind of subtle contrast is about as far as any of Biden's Democratic rivals will go toward publicly criticizing him, because they see little benefit to their own campaigns — and tremendous risk — in piling on at a time when Republicans are barraging voters here with allegations that members of Biden's family benefited improperly from his positions in elected office.

That's especially true given the fact that Trump himself has amplified unsubstantiated charges against Biden.

Read more here

Trump attorney won't say when Trump first ordered hold on Ukraine aid

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who has expressed an openness to hearing witness testimony in the trial, asked the White House legal team, "On what specific date did President Trump first order the hold on security assistance to Ukraine and did he explain the reason at that time?"

White House lawyer Patrick Philbin, however, never answered the question and instead identified several dates related to the hold on Ukraine aid. 

"The evidence in the record shows that the president raised concerns at least as of June 24, that people were aware of the hold as of July 3. The president's concerns about burden-sharing were in the email on June 24. They're reflected in the July 25 call," he said. 

Philbin cited a June 24 email, a follow up to an earlier meeting with Trump, that addressed questions about funding for U.S. firms and what other NATO members spend to support Ukraine. 

He said that there is testimony in the record that Office of Management and Budget officials were "aware of a hold as of July 3" and there is evidence in the record of the president's rationales from even earlier than that.

Multiple witnesses testified during the House impeachment inquiry that they were informed by an OMB staffer on July 18 that a hold had been placed on Ukraine assistance. That hold wasn’t lifted until Sept. 11. 

Rand Paul: Discussions about whistleblower question 'ongoing'

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has reportedly been pushing to ask a question about the whistleblower's identity.

Asked about the status of that question, Paul said: "It’s still an ongoing process. It may happen tomorrow."

But another Republican senator, John Thune of South Dakota, said he suspects a question that could name the whistleblower "won't happen."

Schiff tells Trump team: 'We're not here to indulge in fantasy or distraction'

Trump attorney Jay Sekulow repeatedly urged senators against calling witnesses, warning that it could delay the trial significantly.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., asked the Trump team why the Senate shouldn’t assume lengthy litigation and decide, like the House, not to subpoena John Bolton’s testimony. 

"If the Senate goes this road of a lengthy proceeding with a lot more witnesses and then I want to ask this question: Is that going to be the new norm for impeachment?" Sekulow said, noting that litigation could set "a very dangerous precedent."

Several Republican senators are still on the fence about whether they will vote to call witnesses, and Sekulow's answer appeared to appeal to those lawmakers directly.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., asked the House managers to respond. 

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the lead manager, said that the White House legal team is making the argument that if the Senate calls witnesses, that will make the trial endless by calling Schiff himself to testify, the Bidens or the whistleblower. 

"We will make you pay for it with endless delay," Schiff said about the Trump team’s case against witnesses. 

"Mr. Sekulow wants me to testify? Well, I'd like Mr. Sekulow to testify about his contacts with Parnas," said Schiff. "We're not here to indulge in fantasy or distraction."

He added, "They're doing the same thing to the Senate they did to the House, which is: You try to investigate the president, you try to try the president, we will tie you and your entire chamber up in knots for weeks and months."

Former Nixon WH counsel: 'Dershowitz unimpeached Richard Nixon'

Trump defense attorney says Burisma probe in the U.S. interest

A group of GOP senators asked the White House legal team whether evidence in the record shows that the investigation of Burisma is in the interest of the U.S. in its efforts to stop corruption.

“The answer is yes, the evidence does show that it would be in the interest of the United States. In fact, the evidence on that point is abundant,” said Patrick Philbin, one of Trump’s defense lawyers. 

Philbin said that shortly after then-Vice President Joe Biden was made the “point man” on Ukraine policy during the Obama administration, Biden’s son Hunter was named to the board of Burisma. 

“And even in the transcript of the July 25 telephone call, President Zelenskiy himself acknowledged the connection between the Biden and Burisma incident, the firing of the prosecutor who reportedly had been looking into Burisma,” Philbin said, referring to Viktor Shokin. 

Philbin said it was “a perfectly legitimate issue” for Trump to raise with Zelenskiy because he said the Biden-Burisma connection undermined the U.S. message on anti-corruption. 

He said it was acceptable for Trump to raise it “to make clear that the United States did not condone anything that would seem to interfere with legitimate investigations and to enforce the proper anti-corruption message.”

Demings brushes aside questions about Trump, Biden children: This is about the president

Democratic senators asked House managers about Trump's personal dealings and his children maintaining significant business interests in foreign countries while the president's defense criticizes Hunter Biden's work with Burisma.

"By the standard the president's counsel has applied to Hunter Biden, should Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump's conflicts of interest with foreign governments also come under investigation?" Sens. Blumenthal, Leahy, Whitehouse and Udall asked.

House manager Rep. Val Demings of Florida answered the question by saying that bringing up Biden's son is as much a distraction as singling out Trump's kids. She said this is about the president abusing his office by allegedly pressuring a foreign government to interfere in the election for his personal benefit. 

"The reason why we're here has nothing to do with anybody's children. As we talked about, the reason we are here is because the President of the United States, the 45th president, used the power of his office to try to shake down— I will use that term because I am familiar with it— a foreign power to interfere into this year's election," Demings, a former police chief, said.

"In other words, the President of the United States tried to cheat and then tried to get this foreign power, this newly elected president to spread a false narrative that we know is untrue about interference in our election."

We're back. Here's the current state of play on a witness vote.

We're back from the dinner break for more questions. Republicans currently believe they are on track to collect the votes necessary to block additional witnesses, including Bolton, when the vote is called Friday afternoon.

A number of Republicans went public today as “no” or “likely no” votes on witnesses, including Sens. Cory Gardner, Pat Toomey, Steve Daines and Pat Roberts.

Democrats would need four GOP senators to vote with them in support of calling additional witnesses. 

 

Schiff rebuts Dershowitz's argument: 'There is a crime here of bribery or extortion'

Schiff rebutted Dershowitz's argument that only criminal acts are impeachable offenses, specifically bribery, which is enumerated in the Constitution as an example of high crimes and misdemeanors. 

The lead House manager argued that when Trump allegedly conditioned a White House meeting and the release of aid to Ukraine on investigations, it was bribery. 

"The counsel acknowledges that a crime's not necessary but something akin to a crime," Schiff said. "Well we think there is a crime here of bribery or extortion, conditioning official acts for personal favors; that is bribery, it's also what the founders understood as extortion. You cannot argue — even if you argue. 'Well, under the modern definition of bribery you've got to show such and such' — you cannot plausibly argue that it's not akin to bribery. It is bribery, but it's certainly akin to bribery."

Schiff added, "But that's the import of what they would argue, that now the president has a constitutional right, under Article II he can do anything he wants. He can abuse his office and do so sacrificing our national security and undermining the integrity of the elections, and there's nothing Congress can do about it."

Schiff says senators should have more information about Russia-backed Trump/Giuliani conspiracy theories

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has asked the House managers if they "know about additional information related to Russia disseminating President Trump's or Rudolph Giuliani's conspiracy theories?"

And if they do, Warner added, "Should the Senate have this information before we deliberate on the articles of impeachment?"

Schiff, in his response, appeared to suggest that there was additional information in this category that the Senate should have — but that it’s been withheld by the executive branch.

Schiff first mentioned the supplemental testimony of Pence aide Jennifer Williams — which was declassified and made available to lawmakers but not released publicly.

But he later mentioned, without providing further details, another "category of intelligence" that "raises a very different problem and that is that the intelligence communities are for the first time refusing to provide to the intelligence committee."

"And that material has been gathered, we know that it exists but the NSA has been advised not to provide it. Now the director says that this is the director's decision but nonetheless there is a body of intelligence that is relevant to request that we have made ... that is not being provided," Schiff said. 

Schiff addressed the issue this month in an interview with ABC's "This Week."

The intelligence communities "appear to be succumbing to pressure from the administration," Schiff said. "The NSA in particular is withholding what are potentially relevant documents to our oversight responsibilities on Ukraine, but also withholding documents potentially relevant that the senators might want to see during the trial.

"That is deeply concerning," Schiff continued. "And there are signs that the CIA may be on the same tragic course. We are counting on the intelligence community not only to speak truth to power but to resist pressure from the administration to withhold information from Congress because the administration fears that they incriminate them."

White House, Bolton lawyer spar over questions about classified info

In a letter to former national security adviser John Bolton's attorney, the White House said Bolton's upcoming book contains classified information that must be removed before it can be published.

In the letter to the lawyer, Charles Cooper, dated Jan. 23, a National Security Council aide wrote: "Based on our preliminary review, the manuscript appears to contain significant amounts of classified information. It also appears that some of this classified information is at the top-secret level."

Cooper responded to the White House in a letter dated Jan. 24, which he released on Wednesday.

In the letter, Cooper said that Bolton is "preparing" to testify and that he would likely discuss some of the material contained in a chapter of his book on Ukraine. Cooper said he did not believe any of the material was classified but wanted to White House to review it "as soon as possible."

Cooper said Wednesday he had yet to hear back from the White House.

After 4 hours, a 2020 Dem finally submits a question

More than four hours after the start of Wednesday's question-and-answer phase of Trump's impeachment trial, a Democratic presidential candidate has finally asked a question. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota was among a group of Democratic senators who submitted a question about witnesses.

The other three senators still running for the Democratic presidential nomination have not asked a question yet: Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, two former 2020 candidates, have asked questions.

OPINION: Getting John Bolton to testify at Trump's impeachment trial is only half the battle

Former national security adviser John Bolton’s potential first-hand evidence — allegedly chronicled in his forthcoming book about his time in the administration and hinted at in a phone call with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Elliot Engel in September — about President Donald Trump’s actions at the heart of the abuse of power impeachment article mean that two battles will most likely be fought in the Senate this week.

While the focus has been on the crucial first fight over whether the Senate will subpoena Bolton (and other witnesses) at all — sources said Wednesday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has admitted he doesn’t have the votes to prevent — an equally critical fight will then ensue over the ground rules under which any witnesses would testify.

More here.

Philbin answers about timeline of Trump's interest in Biden, Ukraine corruption

Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine asked the deputy White House counsel whether the president ever mentioned the Bidens in the context of corruption in Ukraine before Joe Biden declared his candidacy for president in spring of 2019, and if so, when and to whom. 

Pat Philbin referred to Biden's anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine, which sought to oust a top prosecutor there who had said he was investigating Burisma, where Hunter Biden was a board member. Philbin then said the election of President Zelenskiy in Ukraine in April 2019 opened up “an opportunity” to start looking at anti-corruption issues because that was the platform that he ran on. Philbin added that Rudy Giuliani began asking questions about Ukraine in the fall of 2018 and in November 2018, and was given tips about what to look into. Philbin said that in March 2019, Giuliani gave a dossier of information to the State Department and Biden announced his White House bid the following month. 

Philbin then referred to the May 23 Oval Office meeting Trump held with several key figures in the impeachment inquiry in which he directed them to speak with Giuliani. 

Republicans push for details on whistleblower's identity

Two Republican senators appeared to attempt to find out more about the identity of the CIA whistleblower whose complaint led to the impeachment inquiry. 

Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas asked Trump’s legal team whether it was true certain House Intelligence Committee staff members "and the alleged whistleblower were employed by or detailed to the National Security Council during the same time period between January 2017 and the present? Do you have reason to believe they knew each other?"

They also asked whether the president's defense had "any reason to believe" the whistleblower and an Intelligence Community staff member "coordinated to fulfill their reported commitment to quote, 'Do everything we can to take out the president,' end quote?"

The question was the first of the day about the whistleblower.

Philbin responded cautiously, saying that "the only knowledge that we have, that I have of this, comes from public reports."

“I gather there is a news report in some publication that suggests a name for the whistleblower, suggests where he worked, that he worked at that time while detailed of the NSC staff for then-vice president Biden and there were others who worked there. We have no knowledge of that, other than what's in the public reports and I don't want to get into speculating about that,” Philbin said. 

About 25 minutes later, Cruz — this time with Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo. — submitted another question about the whistleblower, asking Schiff if the whistleblower worked "at any point for or with Joe Biden."

Schiff said he did not know who the whistleblower is and also explained the need to protect the person's identity.

Philbin: Bolton book held up because of classified information

Asked about when Trump's lawyers learned about Bolton's manuscript and whether they or anyone in the White House tried to block its publication, White House lawyer Pat Philbin didn't have a clear timeframe on when people learned of the manuscript but said top-secret information was a problem for its publication. Philbin told senators that the book had been reviewed by career National Security Council officials and found to have “significant amounts of classified information,” including some at the top-secret level.  

Government officials are now working with Bolton, through his attorney, to eliminate classified material from the book before publication, he said.

Romney jokes after being name-dropped during question: 'I’m giving a quick call to Tagg'

NBC News asked Mitt Romney during the break how he felt about being name-dropped during the question-and-answer session.

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas had asked Schiff whether President Barack Obama would have had the authority to ask for a corruption investigation if Mitt Romney's son was being paid by a corrupt Russian company.

Romney laughed and, referring to the oldest of his five sons, told NBC News, "I’m giving a quick call to Tagg right now to make sure he disabuses himself of that million dollars he got."

White House mood on witnesses: 'Cautiously optimistic'

Witness watch

The mood in and around the White House on the witness vote seems to be shifting into a more "cautiously optimistic" position, in the words of one source familiar with the matter. They get the sense some Republicans are wary of opening a Pandora's box with multiple witnesses. Another source frames the witness question to NBC News this way: It's a "jump ball, but we have the taller player." But there's an acknowledgement that news-of-day events could intervene, with one official using another sports analogy, saying the ball could still get fumbled between now and Friday. 

Notable Q&A moment

Alan Dershowitz is getting a lot of attention for making the argument that it cannot be an impeachable quid-pro-quo offense "if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest." That has some outside legal experts scratching their heads, given what it implies if taken to its logical conclusion. 

Bolton latest

The White House is releasing a letter sent to John Bolton's attorney warning him his manuscript "appears to contain significant amounts of classified information," invoking the law and Bolton's NDA and demanding "the manuscript may not be published or otherwise disclosed without the deletion of this classified information." Worth noting that Bolton's attorney pre-butted, in effect, this exact argument just a few days ago, writing the manuscript "contained no information that could reasonably be considered classified."

Schumer: Dems directed questions to managers to give them a 'chance to rebut the false arguments'

"We thought it was a good morning, a good afternoon for us," a cheerful Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters during a short break from the question-and-answer session of the Senate trial.

He also nodded toward the Democrats' strategy so far.

"The reason we directed so much of our questions to the House managers is because they needed the chance to rebut the false arguments, the fallacious reasoning, the half-truths, and even no truths that the three days of the president’s counsel made, and this was their first chance to do it," he said.

Harris quotes from 'Access Hollywood' tape, compares Trump to Nixon

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., quoted from the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape during a question about executive power in which she compared Trump to former President Richard Nixon.

"President Nixon said, quote, 'when the president does it that means that it is not illegal.' End quote. Before he was elected, President Trump said, quote, 'when you're a star they let you do it, you can do anything,' end quote," Harris said. That last remark was a quote from the "Access Hollywood" tape on which Trump was caught making vulgar comments about women.

Harris continued: "After he was elected, President Trump said that Article Two of the Constitution gives him, quote, 'the right to do whatever he wants as president.' End quote."

"These statements suggest that each of them believed that the president is above the law, a belief reflected in the improper actions that both presidents took to affect their re-election campaigns. If the Senate fails the hold the president accountable for misconduct, how would that undermine the integrity of our system of justice?" Harris asked.

Schiff responded by saying, "I think this is exactly the fear.”

"I think if you look at the pattern in this president's conduct and his words, what you see is a president who identifies the state as being himself," Schiff said. "When the president talks about people that report his wrongdoing, for example, when he describes a whistle-blower as a traitor or a spy. The only way you can conceive of someone who reports wrongdoing as committing a crime against the country is if you believe you are synonymous with the country, that any report of wrongdoing against the president, to the person of the president, is a treasonous act."

Protesters near Capitol hold up signs on witnesses and GOP votes

Image: Protesters hold signs near the Capitol during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Jan. 29, 2020.
Protesters hold signs near the Capitol during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Jan. 29, 2020.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images

Senator speaks to areas where Trump may have waived privilege

ANALYSIS: Witnesses are fine, as long as there’s no venue

In the House, the White House counsel’s office argued that impeachment was a sham and President Trump refused to participate in the investigation in any way. He issued a blanket prohibition on his aides complying with requests for testimony and his agencies producing documents.

In federal court, his Justice Department has argued the House does not have standing to pursue subpoenas. 

In the Senate, White House lawyers are currently arguing the House should have interviewed witnesses or gone to court to force them to testify. The House did both, only to face opposition from the administration.

“There’s a proper way of doing things and an upside-down way of doing things,” deputy White House counsel Patrick Philbin said Wednesday in advising the Senate that it is not the right venue for witnesses either.

Dem. senator asks if Roberts has authority to rule on witnesses, executive privilege

A recent question from Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., aimed at the House managers, touched on Chief Justice John Robert's ability to help resolve issues regarding witnesses in an impeachment trial in the Senate.

"Some have claimed that subpoenaing witnesses or documents would unnecessarily prolong this trial. Isn't it true that depositions of the three witnesses in the Clinton trial were completed in only one day each? And isn't it true that the chief justice as presiding officer in this trial has the authority to resolve any claims of privilege or other witness issues without any delay?" Carper asked in a question read by Roberts.

"Mr. Chief Justice, the answer is yes," said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.

Roberts could in theory break a tie among senators on the issue of calling witnesses, legal experts have said. 

Some experts have also said that Roberts has the authority to make rulings that pertain to executive privilege.

Asked to correct 'falsehoods' from White House lawyers, Lofgren contests several of their major points

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., asked the House managers if they “care to correct the record on any falsehoods or mischaracterizations in the White House's opening arguments?"

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said in response that Trump’s defense team argued six facts and that “all six of those so-called facts are incorrect.”

Among them, Lofgren said, were the defense’s claim that nothing improper occurred on the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy — a claim she said was disproved by “all of this evidence” presented by the House managers “that makes us understand that phone call even more clearly.”

Another item Lofgren mention was the claim by Trump’s defense that Zelenskiy “never felt pressured” to open the investigations desired by Trump.

“Of course they didn’t say that publicly,” Lofgren said. But she pointed out that Zelenskiy had said that he didn’t want to be involved in U.S. domestic politics and that he “resisted announcing the investigations.”

Another claim Lofgren contested was the claim made by the defense that “Ukraine didn’t know Trump was withholding the security assistance.”

“Many have contested that,” she said.

Dershowitz says a quid pro quo in Trump's political interest is fine and not impeachable

Alan Dershowitz argued that a quid pro quo involving a president's political benefit was fine because all presidents believe their elections are in the public's interest.

Essentially, if Trump withheld nearly $400 million in aid to pressure Ukraine into announcing investigations of Democrats to help his campaign, that's fine because Trump thinks his election is to the country's benefit.

"If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment," he said.

Dershowitz said there were three possible motives for a quid pro quo in foreign policy: the first is the public interest; the second, personal political interest; and the third, personal financial interest. 

In the end, only the latter instance is corrupt, he said.

"Every public official I know believes that his election is in the public interest," Dershowitz said.

Schiff was given the chance to respond to Dershowitz's argument, one he said he thought was providing "carte blanche" for such quid pro quos in the future. The lead House manager used a hypothetical scenario to make his point. What if former President Barack Obama told Russia that he would withhold aid to Ukraine only if they launched an investigation into his 2012 Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

"Do any of us have any question that Barack Obama would be impeached for that conduct?" he asked.

Read the story.

White House may have little chance of blocking Bolton testimony

If the Senate voted to hear John Bolton's testimony during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, the White House would face long odds in trying to get a court to prevent it.

The president has already suggested Bolton's testimony might violate executive privilege.

"The problem with John is that it's a national security problem," Trump said last week in comments in Davos, Switzerland. "John, he knows some of my thoughts, he knows what I think about leaders. What happens if he reveals what I think about a certain leader and it's not very positive, and then I have to deal on behalf of the country? It's going to be very hard, it's going to make the job very hard."

The first challenge for the White House is a procedural one. Without an order from a court blocking Bolton from testifying, he's free to do whatever he wants. That's the opposite of the way these disputes normally play out, when administration officials are prevented by the White House from appearing before Congress unless a court orders them to do so.

Read the story.

Leahy asks about White House claim there was no wrongdoing because aid was released

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked the House managers about the administration’s claim that, because the aid to Ukraine was eventually released, there was no wrongdoing.

“The president's counsel argues that there was no harm done, that the aid was ultimately released to Ukraine, the president met with Zelenskiy at the U.N. in September and that this president has treated Ukraine more favorably than his predecessors. What is your response?" Leahy’s asked in a question stated by Roberts.

Rep. Val Demings, R-Fla., replied by referring to the Ukrainians who had died in the country’s war with Russia during the Trump administration’s watch, and said that the withholding of the aid, no matter how long, was not “legitimate” and sent a bad signal to Russia.

“Holding the aid for no legitimate reason sent a strong message that the relationship between the United States and Ukraine was on shaky ground,” Demings said.

An hour in, no questions from Democratic presidential candidates

We are more than an hour into today’s question-and-answer session of the Trump impeachment trial. 

And despite the rapid-fire pace, there have still been no questions from any of the senators who are running for the Democratic presidential nomination (Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Michael Bennett of Colorado).

Does a impeachable offense need to be a crime?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., asked the House managers if an impeachable offense had to be a crime, with a pointed illustration of what precedent that would set: "Does this reasoning imply that if the president does not violate a criminal statute, he could not be impeached for abuses of power such as ordering tax audits of political opponents, suspending habeas corpus rights, indiscriminately investigating political opponents or asking foreign powers to investigate members of Congress?" 

House manager Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, said that "the simple answer is a president can be impeached without a statutory crime being committed.”

She went on to note that criminality was not required of impeachment by the Constitution or its framers, as well as future courts and impeachments.

“A strong majority of impeachments voted by the House since 1789 have included one or more allegations that did not charge an allegation of criminal law,” she said.  

White House objects t publication of Bolton's book, demands classified info be removed first

In a letter to former national security adviser John Bolton's attorney, the White House said Bolton's upcoming book contains classified information that must be removed before it can be published.

In the letter to the lawyer, Charles Cooper, dated Jan. 23, a National Security Council aide wrote: "Based on our preliminary review, the manuscript appears to contain significant amounts of classified information. It also appears that some of this classified information is at the top-secret level."

"The manuscript may not be published or otherwise disclosed without the deletion of this classified information," added Ellen Knight, NSC senior director for records, access and information security management.

Read the story.

Feinstein asks managers about Trump team's insistence there's 'no evidence' aid and investigations were linked

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, asked House impeachment managers: "The president's counsel stated that, quote, 'There is simply no evidence anywhere that President Trump ever linked security assistance to any investigations.'"

"Is that true?" she added.

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., responded, saying it was not and adding there was "overwhelming evidence" that Trump withheld the aid until Ukraine announced the investigations into Democrats that he sought.

Crow cited testimony from Gordon Sondland, Trump's ambassador to the European Union, who detailed  a September phone call with the president in which Trump denied any quid pro quo but then outlined that alleged quid pro quo. He also pointed to acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who said in October that aid was partially tied to an investigation of so-called Ukrainian electoral interference in 2016. Mulvaney walked those remarks back soon after.

Crow said that if senators have "any lingering questions about direct evidence, there is a way to shed additional light" — call Bolton as a witness "and ask him directly."

The former national security adviser reportedly claims in a manuscript of his upcoming book that Trump linked aid and investigations during an August conversation. That contradicts the president's impeachment defense, as Trump and allies have said the hold on military aid and investigations were not linked. 

Trump denied such a conversation with Bolton took place.

ANALYSIS: Senators aren't taking any chances, yet

So far, all of the questions have been softballs from Democrats to the House managers and from Republicans to the president’s lawyers. The senators are looking to highlight the main points that were made ad nauseam through the six days of presentations of the opposing counsels.

The only way to draw blood — at the risk of losing a fight — is to ask a pointed question of the other side. When Democrats put the White House lawyers on the spot or Republicans dig into the House managers, things might get interesting. Until then, they're circling the chamber under a caution flag.

Sen. Mike Lee asks if president has right to conduct foreign policy

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked of the Trump defense team:

"The House managers have argued aggressively that the president's actions contravened U.S. Foreign policy. Isn't it the president's place, certainly more than the place of career civil servants, to conduct foreign policy?"

Philbin replied, saying, "It is definitely the president’s place to set foreign policy, and the Constitution makes this clear."

The question seemed geared at making the point that Trump can conduct whatever foreign policy he sees fit — and that "career civil servants" lack the authority to take actions to contradict that policy if they disagree.

Schiff complains about 'duplicity' of Trump lawyer's arguments against Bolton testimony

Asked to correct the record on how House investigators pursued Bolton’s testimony, Schiff complained that Trump and his lawyers were denying that the House Committee had authority to secure testimony from witnesses in court while also insisting in the Senate that the panel hadn’t tried very hard to get such testimony.

“It takes your breath away, the duplicity of that argument," Schiff said. "They’re before you saying, ‘They should have tried hard to get these witnesses, they should subpoena, they should have litigated for years,’ and down the street, in a federal courthouse, they’re arguing, 'Judge, you need to throw them out,'” Schiff said. “Are we really prepared to accept that?”

Sen. Gardner says he will vote against calling witnesses

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., will vote against witnesses, his office confirmed Wednesday.

“I do not believe we need to hear from an 18th witness," Gardner said in a statement released by his office. "I have approached every aspect of this grave constitutional duty with the respect and attention required by law, and have reached this decision after carefully weighing the House managers and defense arguments and closely reviewing the evidence from the House, which included well over 100 hours of testimony from 17 witnesses.”

Third question is a GOP follow-up about Bolton testimony question

The third question, from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., was aimed as a follow-up at Schiff's response to Schumer's questions about the significance of Bolton's testimony.

"To the president's counsel. Would you please respond to the arguments or assertions the House managers just made in response to the previous question?" Roberts read on behalf of Thune.

Top Democrat reveals private call with Bolton that contradicts Trump claims

Rep. Eliot Engel pushed back on President Donald Trump's claims that John Bolton didn't complain about the president's conduct toward Ukraine as the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman revealed a September call with Bolton in which the former NSA chief told him to examine the ouster of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

"President Trump is wrong that John Bolton didn't say anything about the Trump-Ukraine scandal at the time the President fired him," Engel, D-N.Y., said in a statement. "He said something to me."

Engel said that he reached out to the former national security adviser on Sept. 19 to ask if he would speak before the Foreign Affairs Committee regarding U.S. foreign policy. Engel said the two then had a call days later, on Sept. 23, when Bolton "suggested to me — unprompted — that the committee look into the recall of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch."

"He strongly implied that something improper had occurred around her removal as our top diplomat in Kyiv," Engel continued. 

Read the story.

Second question, from Schumer, is about importance of testimony from Bolton

The question, from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., was directed to the House managers.

"John R. Bolton's forthcoming book states that the president wanted to continue withholding $391 million in military aid to Ukraine until Ukraine announced investigations into his top political rival and the debunked conspiracy theory about the 2016 election. Is there any way for the Senate to render a fully informed verdict in this case without hearing the testimony of Bolton, Mulvaney and the other key eyewitnesses or without seeing the relevant documentary evidence?" Roberts stated.

Schiff, before launching into a lengthy answer, first replied, "The short answer to that is no."

First question comes from key GOP cohort of Collins, Romney and Murkowski

The first question came from Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — who announced that she was asking on behalf of herself as well as two fellow Republicans, Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Collins introduced her question but the question itself, directed at Trump’s defense team, was read by Chief Justice John Roberts:

“If President Trump had more than one motive for his alleged conduct, such as the pursuit of personal political advantage, rooting out corruption and the promotion of national interests, how should the Senate consider more than one motive in its assessment of Article One?"

Collins, Murkowski and Romney are among the small list of GOP senators who could vote in favor of calling witnesses in the Senate trial. 

Deputy White House counsel Patrick Philbin answered that a mixed motive — one involving both personal and public interests — "can’t possibly be an offense."

"Because it would be absurd to have the Senate trying to consider, 'Well, was it 48 percent legitimate interest and 52 percent personal, or was it the other way? Was it 53 percent and 47 percent? You can't divide it that way."

Philbin added, "If there is something that shows a possible public  interest, and the president could have that possible public interest motive, that destroys their case. So once you're into mixed-motive land, it's clear that their case fails, there can't possibly be an impeachable offense at all."

Lev Parnas, the indicted associate of Giuliani, tries to attend Trump impeachment trial

Lev Parnas, the indicted associate of President Donald Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani who has said he wants to testify in the president's impeachment trial, showed up at the Senate on Wednesday attempting to gain entry.

Parnas, however, can't enter the Senate gallery because he is wearing an electronic monitoring device on his ankle — and no electronic devices are allowed in the Senate chamber during the trial.

Before he made his way to the Senate chamber, Parnas told reporters that if he were ever allowed to testify in the trial, he's not sure it would change the minds of Republican senators, because they live in the "cult" of "Trump world."

Parnas reiterated that he wanted to testify under oath at Trump’s trial — and that he also would like to see Trump, and other key cabinet members, testify.

Read what Parnas said.

Trump to senators at White House event: 'Maybe I’m just being nice to them because I want their vote'

Impeachment was clearly on President Donald Trump's mind Wednesday during a Rose Garden event celebrating the signing of the U.S. trade deal with Canada and Mexico.

In the middle of rattling off a list of senators to thank for their work on the deal, Trump noted: "Maybe I’m just being nice to them because I want their vote. Does that make sense? I don't want to leave anybody out."

As the crowd, including a number of members of Congress, laughed, Trump referred to the largely party-line House impeachment vote, saying: "Hey, congressman, I already got your vote. ... To hell with you, I think I have to mention some senators."

Trump also referred to the work a number of senators were doing on impeachment as he called them out, saying Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was anxious to get back to the Capital to ask questions: "He’s got some beauties, I bet." 

On Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., Trump said, "He's saying just read the transcript."

When he got to Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., he asked, "Why are you not over there, Rick?" and added that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wasn't attending because he was holding a news conference.

As Trump handed out pens to members of Congress after signing the deal, he joked to the crowd: "See how nice I'm being to senators? I don't care about anybody else." 

Toomey suggests he's in the 'nay' column on calling witnesses

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who reportedly raised possibility of trying to strike a one-for-one deal on witnesses after news of the Bolton book broke, is now sending signals that he's leaning against calling for witness testimony.

Toomey said Wednesday morning that he is “very, very skeptical” that new witnesses would change his mind on the verdict, his spokesman Steve Kelly confirmed to NBC. Toomey's remarks were reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Graham 'concerned' attacks on Bolton will only increase calls for him to testify

Sen. Lindsey Graham said Wednesday that he is "concerned" that attacks on John Bolton's credibility could increase demands for him to he testify in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial — a statement that came shortly after Trump ripped into Bolton on Twitter.

“The House managers’ claim that the sole reason President Trump temporarily paused the aid was purely personal and political, not public, does not withstand scrutiny," Graham, a South Carolina Republican and close Trump ally, claimed in a statement. “However, I am concerned when John Bolton’s credibility is attacked, it makes it more likely some will feel the need to call him as a witness."

Graham, who is up for re-election this year, added that if Bolton is called, “it would be important for the president and his team to call witnesses on other issues.”

In his statement, Graham said he thinks additional testimony from witnesses is "unnecessary."  

“For the sake of argument, one could assume everything attributable to John Bolton is accurate and still the House case would fall well below the standards to remove a president from office," he said, referring to reports that Bolton's upcoming book contradicts a key part of the president's impeachment defense.

Graham also claimed there was "ample evidence for the president to be concerned about conflicts of interest on behalf of Hunter Biden and that Vice President Joe Biden’s failure to take appropriate action was unacceptable. This combination, in my view, undercut America’s message on reforming corruption in Ukraine." 

What to watch on Wednesday

A source on the legal team says they are 'prepared” for whatever comes, with another source familiar with the thinking telling NBC News that they’re ready for a wide range of questions, including, of course, some on Bolton. The team is expecting Democrats to focus the bulk of their Q&A on trying to build the case for witnesses. Another source familiar with the matter predicts the questions on the Republican side will likely try to provide greater clarity on “areas of interest” that senators have talked about privately (our read: like, presumably, Bolton.) 

Witness update

The White House is largely deferring senator-wrangling to Mitch McConnell. But a source familiar with the legal team’s thinking tells NBC News that they believe the witness vote will be “close.” Another source acknowledges there’s less confidence now than before the Bolton book leak about a quick wrap-up to the trial, but still thinks there’s a strong chance they get an acquittal by the end of the week. 

Giuliani associate Lev Parnas arrives, takes selfies at Capitol

Image: Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of Rudy Giuliani, poses for a selfie with protester outside of the Capitol on Jan. 29, 2020.
Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of Rudy Giuliani, poses for a selfie with protester outside of the Capitol on Jan. 29, 2020.Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Just catching up with the trial? Here's what you missed.

Wednesday marks a new phase of the impeachment trial, as senators turn to asking questions of the prosecution and defense. Trump's team wrapped up their arguments on Tuesday.

Here's a brief recap of the trial so far:

Parnas can attend Trump's impeachment trial, but judge won't let him take off ankle monitor

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Lev Parnas, one of Rudy Giuliani's indicted associates, can attend President Donald Trump's impeachment trial — but he won't be able to take off his ankle monitor, so he most likely won't be permitted on the Senate floor.

Attorney Joseph Bondy asked U.S. District Judge Paul Oetken of New York for a modification to Parnas' bail conditions, including the removal of his GPS monitoring device, because it wouldn't be permitted in the Senate Gallery. The proposal was for Parnas to travel from New York to Washington on Wednesday and attend the trial from 12:30 to 2:45 p.m.

Read the story.

Manchin says he thinks Hunter Biden is a relevant witness

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Wednesday that he thinks former Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden is a relevant witness in the impeachment trial.

"You know, I think so. I really do," Manchin said. "I don't have a problem there because this is why we are where we are. Now I think that he can clear himself of what I know and what I’ve heard."

"But being afraid to put anybody that might have pertinent information is wrong no matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican," he continued.

The Mountaineer State senator added that if Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the trial, agreed that the younger Biden is "pertinent," Manchin would vote to call him.

Manchin's state overwhelmingly voted in favor of Trump in 2016 and then reelected Manchin in 2018.

Democrats have contended that Hunter Biden is not a relevant witness to Trump's impeachment trial, since he has no direct knowledge of what Trump was charged with — abusing his power and obstructing Congress.

Manchin said he favors approving witnesses in the case, and Republicans have said they will seek to bring witnesses like the Bidens and the whistleblower forth if witness testimony is approved.

Trump rages at Bolton, says former adviser would have caused 'World War Six'

President Donald Trump berated his former national security adviser John Bolton on Wednesday, bashing his former top aide after the aide reportedly contradicted a key element of the president's impeachment defense in an upcoming book.

Trump suggested that if Bolton, a conservative war hawk, were still in the White House, the U.S. "would be in World War Six by now."

Those comments came hours after another tweet in which Trump asked: "Why didn't John Bolton complain about this 'nonsense' a long time ago, when he was very publicly terminated. He said, not that it matters, NOTHING!"

Bolton asserts he was not fired.

Read the story.

Exclusive: Dutch Trump superfan who claimed he surveilled Ambassador Yovanovitch told people he was DEA

The Dutch man who claimed to have Marie Yovanovitch under surveillance when she was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine has been masquerading as a U.S. federal law enforcement officer and told people he was starting a tech company that could track movements electronically, according to interviews and documents obtained by NBC News.

And despite saying he had "no connection" to Ukraine, the man, Anthony de Caluwe, was romantically involved with a Ukrainian woman, who returns regularly to her home country, at the same time in early 2019 that he sent text messages about Yovanovitch's purported whereabouts in Kyiv, according to two people who know de Caluwe and photographs obtained by NBC News.

Read the NBC News exclusive.

Here’s what you need to know about the Q&A phase of impeachment

WASHINGTON — It's question time for the Senate in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial.

The move to the new phase of the trial Wednesday comes after Trump's legal team finished up its opening argumentsTuesday and ahead of a decision on whether to hear from witnesses. It also gives Republican senators who've complained about the lead House manager, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a chance to force him to answer their questions.

Here's what we know about how the question-and-answer session will work.

ANALYSIS: Trump defense team makes compelling case for Bolton testimony

DES MOINES, Iowa — President Donald Trump's defense lawyers rested with more of a whimper than a bang Tuesday — resigned, perhaps, to the possibility that their boss's time in the crucible of a Senate impeachment trial will not come to an immediate end.

Trump's lawyers even appeared to undermine their own assertions that former national security adviser John Bolton, whose forthcoming book reportedly corroborates the allegation that the president tied U.S. aid for Ukraine to political investigations, should not testify.

Read more here. 

Trump accuses Democrats of 'deranged partisan crusades' as impeachment trial heats up

President Donald Trump doubled down his attacks against Democrats and his impeachment trial at a New Jersey campaign rally Tuesday night, accusing them of pursuing "deranged partisan crusades" and reminding supporters of the importance of winning back the House of Representatives in November.

"The congressional Democrats are obsessed with demented hoaxes, crazy witch hunts and deranged partisan crusades," Trump said, speaking at the Wildwoods Convention Center by the New Jersey shore.

"Americans of all political beliefs are sick and tired of the radical, rage-filled left socialists,” Trump continued. "Really, the Democrat Party is the socialist party and maybe worse. Voters are making a mass exodus from that party and we are welcoming them to the Republican Party with wide open arms."

Read more here.